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Cash in Hand

Why You Gotta Try Ibotta

Why you should care

Because cutting coupons should rightfully be consigned to the junk heap of history.

screen grab from app

Ibotta

This editors’ pick first ran on October 29, 2013. 

Apps these days may make pleasant companions, entertaining diversions or useful tools, but it is rare to find one that actually fills a void, let alone one that pays you for the privilege of filling that void. But that’s exactly what a new mobile savings app called Ibotta does — over and over again.

How does Ibotta work? On several levels. Most obviously it is a smartphone app that provides consumers a way to get cash back on every trip to the store without having to wade through circulars with scissors or apply for a new credit card.

Ibotta was launched on the key premise that regular digital coupons are simply ‘a waste of a perfectly good smartphone.’

Ibotta users earn credit for briefly engaging with various products by taking quizzes, playing games, watching commercials and answering questions on their phone or tablet. For example, “take a poll” and “learn a fact” about Simply Lemonade juice and earn 50 cents. Then, if you later buy Simply Lemonade at one of the 75,000 or so participating stores across the U.S. — including giant retailers like Target, Walmart, CVS, Costco, Whole Foods, Safeway and Walgreens — and upload a photo of your receipt, Ibotta will pay you the cash back that you have earned.

In the year since its launch last November, Ibotta has enjoyed almost viral growth, garnering 1.75 million users and 1.5 billion impressions despite rather limited marketing. If you’re keeping score at home that means that in less than one year Ibotta has racked up four times more active users than Coupons.com’s app. In fact, the small start-up, based not in Silicon Valley but in Denver, Colorado, now boasts the 16th most frequently used app in America, just behind Pinterest and ahead of Netflix.

Cash coming out of smartphone

Ibotta

Ibotta, which officially launches its version 2.0 on November 7, is not the first to venture into the world of mobile savings apps or digital coupons: Target, CVS and other retails have store-specific apps, and other apps like Yowza and The Coupons App help users find and collect digital coupons on their smartphones. What makes Ibotta unique is what CEO and founder Bryan Leach calls “incentivized brand engagement.” According to Leach, a former trial lawyer, Ibotta was launched on the key premise that regular digital coupons are simply “a waste of a perfectly good smartphone.” In other words, why limit smartphone users to collecting coupons and compiling grocery lists when they can be interacting, providing input and engaging in a conversation about the products they purchase.

But Ibotta’s real genius is not the retirement of the coupon but the open, symbiotic feedback loop it creates between consumers, retailers and manufacturers. In a competitive marketplace where product brand managers are desperately trying to get consumers to click on banner ads and to capture their behaviors and preferences, Ibotta offers a forum where brands can get fresh, usable information about consumers without alienating them. What’s more, consumers get paid based on their level of engagement, and retailers can enjoy brand-funded discounts that bolster their sales.

screen grab from app

Snapshot of the Ibotta app

Ibotta thus offers brands both a data gathering and purchase stimulating opportunity. And this kind of actionable data, straight from consumers’ smart phones, is a game changer for brand managers, which is one reason why the ten largest consumer package good companies from Kraft to Nestle have all agreed to partner with Ibotta. As Leach puts it, “There’s no other place where people go to voluntarily learn and engage about their favorite brands.” And just try getting that kind of return from a pop-up video or banner ad.

Ibotta’s real genius is not the retirement of the coupon but the open, symbiotic feedback loop it creates between consumers, retailers and manufacturers.

But, Ibotta does not just represent what may well be the future of brand engagement. With 90 percent of its users between the ages of 15 and 45 — 60 percent of whom never use coupons — it may also help brand managers get ahold of a whole generation of shoppers in a new way. As Leach explains, those using Ibotta “are not typically trawling through the newspaper for information about consumer promotions. They’re not following these brands on Facebook…These are not people who clip coupons.”

Ibotta may have started with grocery stores, pharmacies, and consumer packaged goods, but like Amazon — which moved on to be so much more than “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” — it has bigger ambitions, including expanding in Europe and overseas (its offers are currently limited to the U.S.). Already Ibotta has landed partnerships with new restaurant chains, department stores and services from Burger King to Redbox, and you can now use your Ibotta earnings at Starbucks and on iTunes and Paypal.

It might not be long before Ibotta finds itself at the center of a seamless consumer cash back and brand engagement model in which you use the reward money you earned from purchasing your new computer toward buying Christmas presents or tonight’s dinner — without having to ever handle cash or write a check, much less cut a coupon.

“We’re trying to become cash back on your phone. Period,” says Leach.

How do you like them apples? Or cookies? Or DVDs? Well, you only need to open up Ibotta and say. Then start collecting your reward. 

Cover image: Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune; top image: Getty

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Sean Braswell

Meet The Author Sean Braswell

Sean Braswell writes about history, politics, film, sports, and most everything else for OZY --aside from this byline, which he assigned to an unpaid intern who was locked in a room, given a Red Bull and an internet connection, and told to make some magic happen, pronto.

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